The Planetary News Radio – Episode 12: Mars Astrobiology, Gut Microbiome’s Influence on Athleticism, and Soft Robots

Welcome to the Planetary News Radio Episode 12 with your host Bryan White. Today I’m going to do two segments. The first is going to be a quick Science in the News, which is just me looking at recent headlines. I haven’t really looked into the articles or read them yet unless it’s something controversial. Then the 2nd [segment] is going to be a new segment, which is just an in depth review of a few articles. And these will be articles that I have ranked, according to an algorithm that I’m working on to rank science quality in the news. And so we’ll talk more about that later as well. So first up, let’s look at science in the news. 

Here’s a headline NASA’s curiosity. Mars Rover detects unusually high levels of methane and why would that be interesting? Well, methane is an organic gas and so any time you see or find methane, you might think that there are either animals or bacteria giving off methane. One of the most fundamental chemical pathways for chemosynthesis involves using methane as an energy source. So at the bottom of the ocean, if there are methane seeps, which are pockets of methane gas that was either frozen or solid and is now being released as a gas bacteria, then a few specialized types of animals can live along those seeps and process methane. Methane [is not just a] food source, it’s also a byproduct for animals releasing gas after processing food. So any time you find methane, we think that’s something closer to organic processes [might be occurring]. And so it’s It’s a point in the direction of finding life on Mars, whether that’s animal-like or bacteria-like we don’t know, most likely that we would suggest that it’s bacterial-like.

Here’s an interesting one. “Could a microbiome boost athletic performance” and another headline on that same topic, “Performance enhancing bacteria found in the microbiome of elite athletes”. So this is really important because find out more and more how important the human microbiome is. So the microbiome, it’s similar to the concept of a genome, so a genome is the listing or the container of all of our genetic information. The microbiome is the container of all of our microbial life, and so humans have all sorts of bacteria living all inside of our body, and some of that could be in the gut. And so the gut microbiome can have various effects. We’re finding out that gut microbiome can even be related to psychology. So perhaps some types of depression and anxiety are influenced by gut microbiome. And so now perhaps athleticism can be influenced by microbiome. And it looks here if I look into this article from NPR, says the elite runners gut microbiome makes mice more athletic. So maybe they transferred some specialized bacteria from a runner into a mouse, and it changed the metabolism of the mouse so that made them more athletic.

That’s really interesting, so this is gonna be really important. It’s important because the gut microbiome could be modified almost immediately in a person if we knew how to do it. So if if a disease or a disorder or or some trait is linked to the genome, it’s really difficult to modify that in a living organism, because you’d have to modify the genome of all of the cells in that adult organism. So, for example, if someone has multiple sclerosis or muscular dystrophy, if you wanted to cure muscular dystrophy, you’d have to affect all of the muscle cells that have that are producing the broken protein. So you have to develop a treatment that if you inject this treatment into someone, it travels through the cells and maybe through a virus, modifies the genome and replaces a specific spot on the genome to eradicate that broken protein, for example, in muscular dystrophy. Now, if you have a disorder that’s based on the gut microbiome all you have to do is change the content of microbes in that person’s stomach or gut. And so we think, and by we I mean the scientific community, this could be a really treatable source. So if we can learn more about how to modify the gut microbiome it might be way less invasive, way less risky than types of genetic modifications. So you see some of the early testing for muscular dystrophy via gene therapy has a lot of risks involved with it because any time you go in, you modify the genome. You have the risk of causing cancer in those cells because any time you have a virus or something that makes an insertion into DNA, it could make a mistake, and then you can have a cancer state occur so gene therapy could make things worse. 

Microbiome therapy could also make things worse. Recently, a couple of people died during a clinical trial of a fecal transplant so related to this gut Microbiome think that you could potentially alter the microbiome by transferring fecal matter from a sick person into a healthy person. But if you make a mistake and transfer bacteria antibiotic resistance bacteria through a fecal transplant, then you could inadvertently do more damage to the person receiving the transplant. And so that recently happened. So there’s risks with altering the microbiome as well. But again, it’s less risky than gene therapy. Gene therapy is a high probability of causing cancer, whereas altering the microbiome maybe might just involve taking some probiotics and changing your gut contents slowly over time in a safe way. Now we won’t be able to treat the same diseases, we don’t think that we’ll be able to treat muscular dystrophy by altering the gut microbiome, but for the set of disorders or traits like athleticism or maybe some metabolic traits for the set of traits that are linked to gut microbiome, they should be much more treatable than attempting to do a genetic therapy. And so the more we learn about the gut microbiome, it’s really exciting. 

Here’s a good astrobiology one, another Mars astrobiology topic. When did life have a chance on Mars after a giant meteorite stopped hitting it 4.5 billion years ago? That’s interesting, because and we think, and in this case by we I mean NASA, has published some documents [on astrobiology]. We think that life could have evolved from nothing from chemical synthesis to the first cellular life could have evolved on Earth in as little as 200,000 years. So if Mars had the potential to begin evolving the life 4.5 billion years ago, that would have been much earlier than Earth because Earth didn’t have the potential to start forming life until about over 3 billion years ago. So Mars could have had its entire life phase happened way earlier than Earth. And so it could have had bacteria like organisms growing and living there and then gone extinct because of a major climate change that occurred on Mars. The loss of the magnetosphere, which protects it from solar radiation. So Mars, or really the surface of Mars, at least today, is very inhabitable to even microbial life. But maybe 4.5 billion years ago is much for habitable, and it didn’t have the problem with Earth. Earth was highly geologically active. Nothing could have survived on the surface, whether or not it was getting pummeled with meteorites. The Earth’s surface was highly volcanic, so it wasn’t stable enough for bacteria to grow and form. Maybe, only in either the oceans or in pools of mud and clay and things like that. Maybe Mars had a more stable surface 4.5 billion years ago. So it’s life was ancient but certainly could have existed. So that’s two points for Mars astrobiology. 

All right, let’s shift to the other segment, which are some articles that I have actually read. The 1st up is a Slate article on it’s called Himalayan Ice Melt has doubled since 2000’s a new study finds. So ice melting from the Himalayas, the rate that ice is melting has doubled [from what was] previously thought so. We knew that ice was melting, but that rate has been revised with new data. So why is that important? Because now you have a situation where you have an upstream mountain system that traditionally has served as a repository for water in the form of ice, and so that ice stays frozen and slowly melts throughout the year. That’s a steady stream of fresh water for all of the downstream communities that live in that area. So people are dependent on these this mountain system for having ice. So if we lose that ice, that’s really bad. And so revised projections now with with climate actions taken 1/3 of the ice on the Himalayas will have melted by the year 2100 with no measures taken, 2/3 will melt, so the amount of ice on the Himalayas will be reduced by 2/3 if no extreme climate actions are taken. So that’s that certainly will be significant as that begins to happen, and it will have a direct human impact. And that’s one of the things that I want to focus on with climate change is things that cause human impacts. 

So let’s see, what’s another one? The time article, “More and more countries agree on this climate change goal”. But will it work? So what is that climate change goal? So this goal it’s called net zero emissions. And that would mean that a country is emitting emissions and sequestering emissions at the same rate. So either you could to reach net zero emissions by emitting nothing, and then your net would be zero. Or you could, [for example emit 100 units of carbon, then you could also sequester 100 units of carbon by either building planting a forest or something like that. Some countries that are talking about implementing this policy by the year 2050. Mostly Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom are planning on implementing it, and this is going to require a dramatic shift in the energy production systems. But of course, if you look at somewhere like Germany, they’ve already made significant efforts in solar energy putting them in a better position to achieve the net zero goal. In the United States, [there is some effort at the] state level, you’ll see this, but at the federal level, you’ll see a rejection of this policy, and the same thing with China and India who are the top three producers along with the US. So unfortunately for the top producers of carbon emissions, we don’t see these shifts towards that net zero policy, although in the United States, thankfully, we have some state level policies that are going this direction, which is really good. The nice thing in the United States is you see the state level policy leading the way the federal level and you see, a lot of the European Union member nations also looking at moving this way, but China and India still have unknown decisions on this policy.

And this is a divergence from climate change to robotics real quick. So the title of this article is “Engineers built a robotic lionfish with an energetic bloodstream”, and I thought this was interesting because I’ve seen a lot of work that’s being done right now on soft robots. So these are robots that are really cool because a lot of this research being done with how animals move and function in terms of mechanics, it’s gonna help society in a lot of ways. So one of those ways is rescue robots. So if you want to send in a robot into a building that collapsed or some chemical hazard has spilled and it’s too dangerous for humans or a bomb threat or something like that, where the environment is unknown, so we don’t know what we’re sending the robot into. We need some type of functional form for a robot that’s adaptable to the environment, and a bipedal robot isn’t necessarily the best thing. Something that can crawl and sneak around through really tight spaces. Maybe something more like a snake or lizard or something like that is more useful. And if you want to have maybe something patrolling the ocean, maybe a marine observation robot, some type of scientific robot swimming around gathering data we could have a fish, a really highly energy efficient fish robot. That would be cool. And so that’s what this article was about. 

It was about a fish robot that they’ve developed a battery that is both hydraulic fluid and energetic fluid, so it’s almost like a blood system for a robot. So as the robot is moving its fins and compressing the fluid, it’s moving the fluid around. And the nice thing about that is, since the hydraulic fluid is the battery fluid, you don’t need to have a battery pack. And in the significant part about that is the weight. So you don’t need the weight of the battery pack. And maybe it makes recharging the robot easier or more difficult. I’m not sure if they have to change out the fluid, but it’s a step in the right direction. It means also that the construction, the shape of the robot, is no longer confined by the structure of the battery system, which is probably one of the biggest and heaviest components of any type of robotic system. So this is a really cool advancement. And so then I mentioned the rescue robots and chemical spills and things like that, the other application of soft robotics, of course, being human interface. So if humans were interfacing with the robot, we don’t necessarily want a really cold metallic structure. Maybe we want, you know, soft robotics, say, in a clinical setting where a robot is involved somehow in patient care. You want to have a soft human like touch. And so we need these soft robotics to mimic a human [form] and human nature. A human mechanical system that isn’t going to hurt a human either by pressure or the components causing damage to a human. So that was a cool side track from climate change, the usual climate science. But that’s all I had today. 

And so this is Bryan White with the Planetary News Radio signing out.

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The Planetary News Radio – Episode 11: Is the Moon part of Mars?

Welcome to the Planetary News Radio Episode 11 with your host Bryan White. Today I’m going to do a Science in the News segment, and then I’ll talk briefly about some of the other projects going on with the Planetary News and a little bit about how to help support this podcast to keep it advertising free. Well, let’s get into the Science in the News segment. So again, just briefly, I’m looking at trending articles and science from various sources, and I haven’t really researched them a lot. I’m mostly just looking at the headlines and trying to understand what’s going on in the world and kind of get a sense for the pulse of science news.

And so let’s look here, Number one, “Trump prompts state of confusion over space policy with tweet”. So this is kind of funny, but it makes sense to me. I see where the confusion is. Trump actually tweeted, [paraphrasing], “That the moon is a priority. We shouldn’t be wasting time on Mars”, or something like that. But then he said, “the Moon is part of Mars” and as out of context as silly that sounds, I actually see where the confusion is from that tweet, and it’s actually not that wrong. What Trump should have said is that the development of technology and systems for travelling to Mars are also part of the development of the systems and technology for traveling to the Moon. So if we develop systems for traveling to the moon, we’re also developing systems to travelling to Mars. And that’s an important point because NASA had to make a decision on what to focus their resources on. As much as everyone would love to colonize Mars and the Moon, we have to choose one [first] because resources are limited. And so NASA’s made the decision that we will return humans to the moon first. That will be the priority.

But at the same time, this is going to help with future missions to Mars. And why So one of the things is is that NASA’s gonna be creating a new space station. So an orbital platform for sending astronauts to the moon. So now you have the Apollo missions. Historically, astronauts are restricted to launching on a rocket one way rocket, now breaching orbit, going straight to the moon. Now, with an orbital stop point, you could have a one rocket designed to exit the earth’s gravity, which is a very different process from actually just traveling across space to the moon. And so you can have the second stage of the Moon plan waiting in orbit or the second stage can be refueled. So if you can send fuel to orbit in multiple stages, you can accumulate more fuel in orbit. And then you don’t have to have everything packed on one trip on one rocket, because exiting your gravity is extremely challenging, extremely expensive, so every pound could cost thousands of dollars to get into orbit.

Having a stop point in low earth orbit on the way to the moon, it is a really good idea. And since the International space station is going to be decommissioned, it doesn’t make sense to continue adapting that. And so hopefully this new effort to build a Moon station will continue on to the building of another space station and that station will be used for future Mars missions. So, as silly as it is, what Trump said sounds silly, it’s actually fairly accurate. The mission to the Moon is part of the mission to Mars.

All right, so next up, speaking of the International Space Station (ISS), NASA and its international partners have been struggling to figure out what to do with it. What they’re saying is that NASA will open up the space station [to private tourism], and this has been talked about for a while. This is the first official announcement that NASA will open up the station to private visitors, and so they can pay cash to go visit the International Space Station. That’s great, because then if you could have enough visitors going to the International Space Station, it could support itself. NASA could afford to maintain it and then that station and another space station. The plan is to decommission the ISS by 2025 or something like that. But if it were to become profitable or break even in terms of funding and that funding came from private individuals or institutions, then I don’t see why the station would be decommissioned. And so then we’ll have NASA itself funding a Moon station in orbit, and then we’ll have the International Space Station still hanging around, so maybe we’ll have to space stations in the next 10 years, so that’s good.

A real quick astronomy note is that Jupiter will be the closest to earth it has been in some time, and so this week is a great week to see Jupiter and its Moons, or at least four of its Moons will be visible. Not necessarily to the naked eye but visible, using low magnification like binoculars or something like that. So I’m excited about that. Hopefully there is clear weather.

Here’s a headline from NBC News. Three islands disappeared in the past year. Is climate change to blame? Well, I don’t know because I didn’t read the article, but let’s think about Could that be the case? Could climate change cause an island to disappear? And the answer is yes. That is entirely possible. For a couple reasons, one would be raising water levels so the water gets hired. But there’s a lot of other forces, too, that cause islands to disappear. So erosion forces and things like that changing can suddenly transform an island that might have been growing, adding sand, actor and soil. So all of a sudden, fading away losing sand and all of these things can be influenced by climate. So again, I’m not looking into that. Too much more of us. Looking at the headline saying that sounds plausible. [In this case, it looks like sea-level rise is the most likely culprit].

There’s an exciting headline: “Incredible Pictures of NASA approved 3D homes to be built on Mars before humans arrived”. So again, back to the Moon/Mars controversy. One of the problems with getting to Mars is resource is resource transfer. Mars is a lot farther away so it’s a lot more expensive to carry materials with you. If colonists arriving on Mars could fabricate their own living structures from natural resource obtained on Mars, then that would free up a lot of space on the spaceship to bring them to Mars. In other words, if you can build your home when you get there, you don’t need to bring your home with you. And so that’s why a lot of colonization research is going into 3D printing. So if we could build homes or any type of structure, a greenhouse [for example], the ability to fabricate structures on Mars would be great, and I’m assuming that this will be tested on the Moon first. So as part of NASA’s “Moon first” plan hopefully we’ll see a 3D printer on the Moon.

Like I said, [in the Science in the News segment], I’m just looking at headlines. The reason why I do this is because here is a trending article that appears to be fake news. “Alien life search bombshell exo-moons may be home to extraterrestrial life”. So first of all, I wouldn’t call that a bombshell because the idea that any exo-planet or exo-moon could house life has been a major component of astrobiology for 30 or 40 years, since the first exo-planets were discovered. Scientists have always thought it possible that if there is alien life, either microbial or other, that it could possibly exist in a planet that is in the habitable zone.

In other words, if the planet is not too close to its star, has the right temperature for organic synthesis to occur, and has some solvents like water or ammonia, then it’s entirely plausible that life could exist. Now, that’s my criticism here: [the wording of the headline]. This headline is “Alien life search bombshell”. Not really a bombshell. The problem with exo-moons and exo-planets is that even if they did have life on it, how would we know? So we’d have to find a way to detect the signature of life on a planet only from its atmosphere, because that’s all we can really see from a telescope. So these planets are many light years away, typically so we can’t visit them and see if there are living organisms there. So we need a system to detect the signature of life from a telescope.

And there’s some work that’s been done on that because we know if we were to point a telescope at earth, what would we look for? Could we determine that Earth had life if we were pointing to telescope at Earth from a light year away? And so, yes, we do know there is some signatures we can look for, like really high oxygen content in the atmosphere would be a suggestion, but again, we won’t be able to confirm that [with physical data]. In our lifetimes, we’ll never be able to confirm that [because of the extreme distance of even the closest exoplanet, which is over 4 light years away]. So that’s why this title, I think, is a little disingenuous and so I’m calling out this article. I’m not naming it, just calling out the headline as [potential fake news].

And so that’s it today for the Science and the News segment. I’ll just talk real quick about one of the other projects I’m starting, which is the Planetary Information Engine (PIE), which is sort of like a three stage process. It’s beginning as a wiki, and so the wiki is going to be constructed to gather scientific knowledge, kind of like an encyclopedia, but a more directed encyclopedia – a little less free-form than Wikipedia. [It will have] more structure towards natural language processing (NLP). And so the idea is that an information engine is something that could be used by an artificial intelligence system to augment your own intelligence or a person’s own intelligence. And so that’s the [new] project I’m starting as well, the Planetary Information Engine, and I’ll have more about that as I get further along.

Hope you enjoyed this podcast. That’s Bryan White with the Planetary News signing out.

Join the discussion on Discord at: https://discord.gg/5HQj8eC.

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